Dark Reading is part of the Informa Tech Division of Informa PLC

This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them.Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 8860726.

Application Security //

Database Security

Collection of Metadata -- as Done by the NSA -- Likely Unconstitutional, US Court Suggests

A ruling in an appeal by four men convicted of material support for terrorism finds that the National Security Agency's metadata collection program not only violated the prevailing law at the time but was also likely unconstitutional.

A post-9/11 program that enabled the mass collection of telephone, cellular, and text metadata by the US National Security Agency (NSA) likely violated the constitution, a three-judge panel of the US Appeals Court for the Ninth Circuit concluded in a ruling on Sept. 2.

Related Content:

Senators Call for End to Controversial NSA Program

Intelligence Panel: NSA Should Stop Bulk Storage of Telephone Metadata

Snowden Says Mass Surveillance Programs 'Are About Power'

The ruling involved an appeal by the attorneys representing four Somali immigrants to the United States convicted in February 2013 of providing financial aid to terrorists, based on the argument that the investigators used data collected from the NSA program as reason to wiretap and investigate the men. While the opinion denied the defendants a new trial, the judges concluded that the collection of metadata on millions of Americans is a substantially different proposition compared with limited requests for dialed phone numbers, which had legally been allowed without a warrant under previous precedents.

The conclusion will make future attempts to revive such a program that much more difficult, says Mark Rumold, a senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights group. 

"The opinion gets as close to saying it violated the Fourth Amendment as an opinion can possibly get without actually deciding it," he says. "It gives very clear notice to the government, to the NSA, [and] to any Congress considering reauthorizing a program like this, that this program likely violated the Fourth Amendment."

The ruling is the latest strike against attempts by law enforcement and the intelligence community to use technology to create a more powerful surveillance capability to find likely criminals, spies, and terrorists. The "call-detail records program," as it is often referred to, had been greatly limited by the passage of the USA Freedom Act in 2015 and then failed to become reauthorized by Congress by the end of last year, as a majority of members of Congress no longer supported the program.

"After speaking with intelligence and law-enforcement officials, it's become clear that changes to the program under the USA Freedom Act have significantly weakened its usefulness," Sen. Richard Burr, R-NC, and chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told the Wall Street Journal in December. "In its current incarnation, the [call-detail record] program simply doesn't provide enough value to justify jeopardizing other critical intelligence tools."

Until the end of last year, Burr had pushed to reauthorized the program.

The federal appeals case centered around the investigation into, and prosecution of, four Somali immigrants convicted of providing material and financial support to the Somali group, al-Shabaab, or "the youth," in Arabic, which used improvised explosive devices and suicide bombings to kill Somali civilians and Ethiopian military forces that supported the transitional federal government in the country. The four men provided more than $10,000 in aid to the group using informal money transfer businesses, known as "hawalas," the appeals court stated in its recitation of findings from the original case.

The US government prosecuted the four men, after originally halting their investigation due to lack of evidence, based mainly on the leads discovered through the call-details records program, according to comments made by Sean Joyce, the deputy director of the FBI in 2013, to Congress. "[I]f [the FBI] did not have the tip from NSA, [it] would not have been able to reopen that investigation," he told Congress according to the appeals-court opinion — later specifically naming the primary defendant.

The records collected included "information such as the phone numbers involved in a call and the time and duration of the call, but not the voice content of any call," the opinion stated.

The appeals court argued that the technology has changed so much and has become so pervasive that the mass collection of metadata provides so much context that any such program rises to the level of mass surveillance. In the past, if a third party had access to information, the citizen was assumed to have given up any reasonable expectation of privacy, a key Fourth Amendment hurdle.

"Advances in technology since 1979 have enabled the government to collect and analyze information about its citizens on an unprecedented scale," the three-judge panel declared. "Confronting these changes, and recognizing that a 'central aim' of the Fourth Amendment was 'to place obstacles in the way of a too permeating police surveillance,' the Supreme Court recently declined to 'extend' the third-party doctrine to information whose collection was enabled by new technology."

The NSA call-details record program is one of the many such classified programs leaked by former government contractor Edward Snowden in 2013. The attorneys for the defendants began the appeals process after details of the programs became public.

The appeals court opinion shows the impact that the Snowden leaks have had on whether mass surveillance is justified, says EFF's Rumold.

"It confirms that one of the programs he blew the whistle on was illegal and unconstitutional," he says. "Courts are becoming increasing open to the idea that the mass collection of data and mass searching of data by law enforcement has different implications for our constitutional rights and free expression than specific targeted searches."

In the end, however, the appeals court determined that the violation of the law, and the probable unconstitutionality of the program, did not warrant suppression of the evidence collected by investigators, as that evidence was not specifically "fruit of the poisonous tree." And, because the Fourth Amendment issue did not have a material impact on the ruling, the three-judge panel did not specifically rule on whether the NSA program violated the Constitution.

"For all these reasons, defendants' Fourth Amendment argument has considerable force," they wrote. "But we do not come to rest as to whether the discontinued metadata program violated the Fourth Amendment because even if it did, suppression would not be warranted on the facts of this case."

Veteran technology journalist of more than 20 years. Former research engineer. Written for more than two dozen publications, including CNET News.com, Dark Reading, MIT's Technology Review, Popular Science, and Wired News. Five awards for journalism, including Best Deadline ... View Full Bio

Recommended Reading:

Comment  | 
Print  | 
More Insights
Newest First  |  Oldest First  |  Threaded View
User Rank: Ninja
9/11/2020 | 4:59:25 PM
Re: Liberal Circuit Shocks
Interesting comments, let me see where we start.

We then access information where the individual involved has "no reasonable expectation of privacy".  The SCOTUS has long held that something can not be private if you have made it public, by buying into a public service.
  • AT&T Privacy Reference
  • Verizon Privacy Reference

The problem with the notion that just because it is a public service, does not mean the information is free for agencies to scower through, that whole notion is going through personal information is preposterous without a warrant or court order. In addition, the metadata that you are talking about (phone numbers, duration, and location) is not all they are gathering, they are pulling the actual content (emails - message data, voice - the phone call itself, location - triagulation of the user), the statement the government stated was an outright lie. The data is being extracted from devices called Narist I & II devices (in certain instances they have been referred to a Einstein I & II), these devices act as taps on the primary carrier Points of Presence (Verizon, Sprint, AT&T, Amazon, Quest, T-Mobile, etc). They have the same setup in England and overseas countries (America - Prism, Boundless Informant, England's version - Tempora, Mobile Version - Stingray)

The reason why America was founded so not to be scruntinzed and remain under the thumb of socialist government tactics. This is the reason why they should shoot these programs down because they have been collecting massive amounts of data and sending it to Utah for years, the initial dragnet program was called Eschelon, morphed into ThinThread, then TrailBlazer (failure) and now Prism, Xkeyscore, Boundless informat, Tempora, Carnivore, etc.

It saddens me that people are so ill-informed about all of the surveillance tactics that has been going on for years (as mentioned by the respondent). In addition, the FISA courts have not denied a court order since their inception, it is a way for the feds to skirt around the law, this is why we have the laws in the first place, to protect the rights of the American Citizen. 

At what point is enough data enough, I think the private sector will start paying agency officials to have access  or tap into this data to deny medical healthcare, overturn lawsuits, malpractice claims because this dragnet surveillance tact will go to the highest bidder, we start sell our own selves out to foreigh entities, then what, it is sad.

Don't believe me, ask
  • William "Bill" Binney
  • Thomas Drake

Their lives were turned upside down because they were tired of individuals taking advantage of their power and they decided to do something about it.

User Rank: Apprentice
9/8/2020 | 4:35:22 PM
Liberal Circuit Shocks
I am shocked that the most liberal circuit court in the U.S. would oppose this technique.  The fact is that the information, while collected, can not be casually accessed.  This is a question of big data.  We use telephone records, routinely in law enforcement.  In this case, we are just storing for the telephone carriers information that is too costly for them to store.  We then access information where the individual involved has "no reasonable expectation of privacy".  The SCOTUS has long held that something can not be private if you have made it public, by buying into a public service.  This will never withstand SCOTUS scrutiny.  I think people get turned off, because they don't understand that the phone conversations themselves are still private, this is just the date, time, duration and to whom you have connected.  That is not private now.  Watch any crime procedural and the cops as for the "luds" or phone records.  It has been going on for decades.  This is just using big data to exploit it.  
Cyberattacks Are Tailored to Employees ... Why Isn't Security Training?
Tim Sadler, CEO and co-founder of Tessian,  6/17/2021
7 Powerful Cybersecurity Skills the Energy Sector Needs Most
Pam Baker, Contributing Writer,  6/22/2021
Microsoft Disrupts Large-Scale BEC Campaign Across Web Services
Kelly Sheridan, Staff Editor, Dark Reading,  6/15/2021
Register for Dark Reading Newsletters
White Papers
Current Issue
The State of Cybersecurity Incident Response
In this report learn how enterprises are building their incident response teams and processes, how they research potential compromises, how they respond to new breaches, and what tools and processes they use to remediate problems and improve their cyber defenses for the future.
Flash Poll
How Enterprises are Developing Secure Applications
How Enterprises are Developing Secure Applications
Recent breaches of third-party apps are driving many organizations to think harder about the security of their off-the-shelf software as they continue to move left in secure software development practices.
Twitter Feed
Dark Reading - Bug Report
Bug Report
Enterprise Vulnerabilities
From DHS/US-CERT's National Vulnerability Database
PUBLISHED: 2021-06-22
Trusty TLK contains a vulnerability in the NVIDIA TLK kernel function where a lack of checks allows the exploitation of an integer overflow on the size parameter of the tz_map_shared_mem function.
PUBLISHED: 2021-06-22
Trusty TLK contains a vulnerability in the NVIDIA TLK kernel�s tz_handle_trusted_app_smc function where a lack of integer overflow checks on the req_off and param_ofs variables leads to memory corruption of critical kernel structures.
PUBLISHED: 2021-06-22
Trusty TLK contains a vulnerability in the NVIDIA TLK kernel where an integer overflow in the tz_map_shared_mem function can bypass boundary checks, which might lead to denial of service.
PUBLISHED: 2021-06-22
Trusty contains a vulnerability in TSEC TA which deserializes the incoming messages even though the TSEC TA does not expose any command. This vulnerability might allow an attacker to exploit the deserializer to impact code execution, causing information disclosure.
PUBLISHED: 2021-06-22
Trusty contains a vulnerability in all TAs whose deserializer does not reject messages with multiple occurrences of the same parameter. The deserialization of untrusted data might allow an attacker to exploit the deserializer to impact code execution.